Editorial | Stop procrastinating over more judges
Delroy Chuck, the justice minister, couldn't be accused of being anything but empathetic with anyone who has cause to complain about the delays in Jamaica's court system, with its backlog of up to half a million cases.
Indeed, he has lamented with the president, Dennis Morrison, about the inadequacy of the number of justices on the Court of Appeal, moaned over unfilled slots in the parish courts, and agrees in principle with the call for hiring judges after their retirement to help clear the pile-up of cases in the Supreme Court.
"There are simply too many outstanding cases and too much work in the court system for these vacancies to remain unfilled," Mr Chuck said in May in another of his not-infrequent signals that he truly understands the issue. The problem, though, is Mr Chuck's seeming inability to move things along at any speed.
Last week, for instance, the justice minister was sympathetic with a Supreme Court litigant, the victim of a motor vehicle crash, whose case has been set for 2022. He again promised to add retired judges to the roster of Supreme Court justices to help move the needle on the number of outstanding cases. However, the parliamentary bill to deal with the matter will come either later this year, or early 2019, according to Mr Chuck.
The timeline for that legislation we find surprising, for in a May parliamentary speech, when he talked about filling the judicial vacancies as soon as possible, Mr Chuck knew, as he acknowledged to legislators, that "cases are now being set for trial in 2022" .
"That is totally undesirable," he said.
What is not clear is why it's taking so long for what ought to be relatively simple bills to make it happen. With regard to increasing the number of puisne judges, if that is the constraint, it would, on the face of it, be the very simple matter of substituting a single word in Section 5 of the Judicature (Supreme Court) Act to increase, at the upper limit, the number of justices on the court.
Nor ought it to be a complex matter to amend Section 100 (2) of the Constitution to increase the age at which judges can sit in the Supreme Court. A judge is supposed to retire at age 70, but already are allowed to continue after that age, "for such period as be necessary to enable him to deliver judgments, or to do any other thing necessary in relation to proceedings that were commenced before him before he retired". If it is more complex than that, templates abound in Caribbean jurisdictions that hire retired judges, including from Jamaica, to fill vacancies in their courts.
An amendment to the Constitution, which could be written in a few minutes, would allow such a judge to take over cases that may have been partly heard, as well as start new proceedings. The time factor here would relate to how long it would take to pass such a bill.
It would require that this bill, having been laid, sit on the table of Parliament for three months before its first debate and another three months after that before its passage. That's a minimum of six months, not taking into account any time for debate in the Senate.
If Mr Chuck is serious about these ideas, he would get a move on with the bills, thus starting the process so that the legal basis for contracting retired judges could be in place in the first half of 2019, rather than later. But, we also know that the legal allowance for more judges doesn't mean they will be appointed. Indeed, it has been a decade since the legislation was changed to allow for 13 judges in the Court of Appeal. The roster is still seven.